Writing Heals

Research has demonstrated the therapeutic efficacy of reflective writing for both physical and mental health.



It began with Dr. Ira Progoff, a leading authority on C.G. Jung, depth psychology and transpersonal psychology, who conducted research into the efficacy of journal writing in psychotherapy.  He found it be a dynamic contribution and he went on to develop the Intensive Journal Method in the mid 1960’s which was and still is, the foundation of most writing therapy programs.  After years of conducting workshops with his method, in 1975, he wrote the award-winning book, At a Journal Workshop.   While Progoff was the leader for discovering the effectiveness of journal writing for psychotherapy applications, there have been other researchers who have made outstanding discoveries since. There has been more than 200 research studies done on expressive writing for healing since the early 1990s. The studies are encouraging and indicate that there are many benefits, such as improvement in asthma, autoimmune disorders and pain management when expressive writing is introduced in the recovery process.  

According to an article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, studies “suggest that writing about emotions and stress can boost immune functioning in patients with such illnesses as HIV/AIDS, asthma and arthritis.” Furthermore, according to researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, therapeutic journal writing can improve the mental and physical health in cancer patients. Finally, an article published in BJPsych Advances states that journal therapy and therapeutic writing are beneficial for treating severe trauma, body image problems, and grief and loss issues.

James Pennebaker, MD. Another leader in the field of writing therapy is Dr. James Pennebaker, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.  He has used expressive writing as a route to emotional healing. He research showed that if a person wrote about something extremely important to them, such as an emotional upheaval, for 15-20 minutes every day for four consecutive days, there could be substantial changes in a person’s immune function and other health benefits.  “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker says, “They go to the doctor less.  They have changes in immune function.” 

In a more recent study, presented in a conference paper and submitted for publication, Pennebaker, Keith Petrie, PhD, and others at the University of Auckland in New Zealand found a similar pattern among HIV/AIDS patients. The researchers asked 37 patients in four 30-minute sessions to write about negative life experiences or about their daily schedules. Afterward, patients who wrote about life experiences measured higher on CD4 lymphocyte counts–a gauge of immune functioning–than did controls, though the boost to CD4 lymphocytes had disappeared three months later. Regardless, the fact that they at first showed improved immune functioning suggests that it reduced their stress through a release of HIV-related anxiety, says Pennebaker. “By writing, you put some structure and organization to those anxious feelings,” he explains. “It helps you to get past them.”

Dr. Daniel Wegner.  Social psychiatrist at Harvard University, Dr. Daniel Wegner, also suggested that  the act of simply writing down the thoughts that you’re trying to suppress,  will help to break the cycle of chronic pain by breaking up the pathways of anxiety and frustration, and reprogram your brain. He found by using MRI brain imaging that the pain centers of chronic pain patients were dormant after 10 years, but their emotional centers in the brain were lit up instead. This indicated to him that the patients were remaining in pain because they were holding onto stressors they might not even have been aware of.  Wegner findings suggest that the first step in solving any problem is to know you have a problem.  Once you are aware of your problem or stressor, you can detach or separate from it through the physical process of writing.  This separation allows your unconscious brain to recognize the separation.  At this point, a new positive response can be substituted for the stressor.  This will create more functional neurological circuits.  Over time, Wegner believes, with enough substitute positive responses, the brain will change.  A simple way one could remember these steps is: Recognize, Detach and Replace.

Another researcher, Dr. John Stracks, a mind-body specialist at Northwestern Hospital, has explored how expressive journal writing can help individuals target their pain triggers. “Delving into the emotional causes isn’t easy, but “regular writing about these topics changes the nerve pathways that carry the pain signals from your back (or neck or shoulders) to your brain and diminishes the pain signals over time,” Stracks said. “Writing to heal pain is aimed at cementing the understanding in your own brain that emotions and stress can cause physical symptoms.” According to Stracks, the physical pain serves as a distraction to underlying uncomfortable emotions. “Often, the pain is more desirable than the other things going on—anger, anxiety, fear or guilt,” said Stracks.

A groundbreaking study of writing’s physical effects appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 281, No. 14) three years ago. In the study, led by Smyth, 107 asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients wrote for 20 minutes on each of three consecutive days–71 of them about the most stressful event of their lives and the rest about the emotionally neutral subject of their daily plans. Four months after the writing exercise, 70 patients in the stressful-writing group showed improvement on objective, clinical evaluations compared with 37 of the control patients. In addition, those who wrote about stress improved more, and deteriorated less, than controls for both diseases. “So writing helped patients get better, and also kept them from getting worse,” says Smyth.

Most of us accept the statement that negative thoughts affect our body and brains negatively.  But, do we really understand how true this statement is? Negative and anxiety producing thoughts release powerful chemicals (adrenaline and cortisol and others) which adversely affect our bodies, including weakening our immune system. Our unconscious brain is one million times stronger than the conscious or rational part of the brain.  Just imagine the amount of influence it is having on our bodies without us knowing!  Luckily, clinical trials have shown the efficacy of journal therapy and therapeutic journal writing to help treat conditions such as:

  • Posttraumatic stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Grief and loss
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Interpersonal relationships issues
  • Communication skills issues
  • Low self-esteem

 As clinical research trials continue to be done, it will be interesting to see in what other ways journal writing might prove beneficial for our well being.









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